Roxanne Buil, an administrative assistant in the Women’s Studies program at UT Arlington, was recently interviewed for a Univision show called “Delicioso” and is one of four finalist competing for a guest spot on TV celebrity chef Ingrid Hoffman’s show.
Buil, a self-taught cook from Miami, has maintained a blog, The Yuca Diaries, for the past three years and is dedicated to celebrating Cuban recipes and her heritage. COLA Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with the woman who earned the childhood nickname of “The Cook” to find out more about the tasty treats life may have in store.
Q: Congratulations on the contest and the national attention. You are one of four food bloggers that will be featured in the program over the next several weeks and viewers can go online and vote for the blogger they like the most. What’s the response been like and what do you win?
A: The segments have generated a lot of site traffic for the show. As of today, I’m in the lead by 700 votes. The prize is they will fly the winner down to Miami where the Univision set is located and the winner will get to film a one-hour show with celebrity chef Ingrid Hoffman and you’ll get to cook side-by-side with her. The airtime and the free trip to Miami would be nice.
Q: You’re originally from Miami and first-generation Cuban American. The name of your blog is The Yuca Diaries, which not only celebrates the yuca or cassava crop used in cooking throughout many tropical and subtropical countries, but also stands for Young Urban Cuban-Americans. How has your cultural heritage influenced how and what you cook?
A: Like in any culture, at the heart of any great party there is great food. Cuban food is no exception to that. For me, it wasn’t just about special events. I remember being in the kitchen all the time with my grandmother and my mom, watching them closely and wanting to help. Some of the fondest memories of my early childhood are in the kitchen around food. I remember when I was in third grade and I was the only kid in the class who would go to the library and stay in the cookbook section, trying to find information about cooking. I love food and I love to eat. One of the most exciting things for me is going to the supermarket and finding an ingredient that I’ve never had before and trying it. My family and my culture had a lot to play in that interest.
Q: How did the blog begin?
A: I really wanted to write a cookbook, but I had no idea how to do it. At the time, I just knew I liked to cook. I figured a blog would be a good way for me to document my recipes, see if this thing will stick, and improve my writing skills. Really, it was just a good way to catalog what I cook.
People who tell me, “Oh, do you remember that thing you made at that potluck? Can you write down the recipe?” I found I was having to write down these recipes anyway for folks who were asking for them, so then I decided I’d start the blog and see where it takes me. And here I am, three years later.
Q: How would you describe the style or type of food you write about? Is it all Cuban recipes or are there recipes from other cultures that you include?
A: Cuban food will always have a special place in my heart. It brings a sense of nostalgia that nothing else can. It’s the flavor of home to me.
I post a lot of Cuban recipes … but I really experiment with my culinary skills and dishes from other cultures. Recently, I experiment with the Vietnamese soup, phở, for the first time, and I really, really love curries.
One of my favorite things to do is travel, but I can’t because, you know, you only have two weeks a year for vacation and who can afford it? For me, one of the easiest ways to learn about other cultures is through their food. I like to cook and learn about food from other parts of the world.
Q: The recipes on your site – are those original, adapted or from family and friends?
A: It’s a combination of all three. Some are completely made up, like the Stuffed Butternut Squash with Chicken Meatballs, Barley and Sage. Usually, I’ll find an ingredient and make the dish around that. If it’s something I’m unfamiliar with, like something from another country, I’ll do the research online, look at other recipes and get a sense of how it’s being used. Then I’ll go from there. There are other recipes I’ll post that are from my grandmother or a friend and I’ll usually follow those closely because I want to do them justice. I always give full credit so people know where the recipes came from.
Q: When you are considering ingredients for your recipes, do you go out of your way to find things that are exotic or commonplace? Most of us are pretty limited in what we have in our pantry when it comes to ingredients.
A: Well, I have a friend who would always complain, “I have to plan my meals; I can’t come up with a recipe on a whim.” She has to really think about what she was going to make. So she and her family would eat out a lot, like four nights a week. And when they did eat in, it was a lot of prepackaged food. She challenged me to visit her and look in her pantry and give her ideas of what to make. When I went over, I saw she had a ton of great stuff that you could use to make some exotic, solid meals.
When you’re making dinner after a long day at work, you don’t want to have to go out of your way to find black truffle oil, which, by the way, is an arm and a leg. A large percentage of my recipes are easy and include ingredients that anyone can find. There’s the occasional dish that might include a specific ingredient and when that happens, I try to include a substitute for people. That way, they can still make the dish and not have to drive all over town to find one ingredient.
Q: Of course experimenting with recipes and ingredients can lead to new discoveries, right?
A: That happens a lot in my kitchen. I rarely, rarely follow a recipe to the tee, unless I’m making it a point to cook something from a friend. For example, I found that adding a little bit of coffee to a chocolate cake batter really brings out the flavor of the chocolate. You don’t taste the coffee. Or, when I make a white sauce, I always add nutmeg. That’s not original to me, obviously a lot of other people do that, but you pick up on things along the way.
Q: Who is your tasting/testing audience?
A: My husband is the first person to try everything. Poor thing. Because of the nature of the blog, I’m working on it when I get home, so it’s dinner I’m making for us. And when it’s ready, he’ll say, “I’m hungry, can we eat?” and I’ll say, “No, I have to take pictures first!” So, bless his heart, he’s been awesome. We have family in the area, so my husband’s family will get to taste the recipes. And occasionally, I’ll bring stuff up here [UT Arlington] and share.
Q: In addition to cooking and writing for the blog you also take all the pictures. The quality of the photographs on your site is pretty impressive. Is that a skill you had before you started?
A: Not really. It’s funny because I think I’m really amateurish when it comes to photography. Right now, I have a point-and-shoot camera to take the pictures. The most gratifying comments [from readers] are the ones about a particular food shot or the quality of the photo. That means a lot to me because I really haven’t developed that skill the way I want to.
Q: Before the Univision contest, you were quietly amassing readers from all over the world. Is it weird to for something that started out as a hobby to get that kind of attention? What has the response been like?
A: When I started getting comments from people I didn’t know, that was kind of a shock to me. Initially, I didn’t think anyone would read it. The blog was more for me and those times when I had a request for a particular recipe. A year and half later … I started seeing visits from Bangladesh, Italy and Brazil – places I know I don’t know anyone in.
It’s interesting to me to see what recipes people are interested in. For example, my favorite recipe that I’ve blogged to date is the Salmon Canapé. But I’ve found that it’s not as popular with my readers as some of the other recipes that I personally may not like as much. It’s encouraging when I get great comments. And when there are suggestions for the recipe, I try to go back and look at it and I’ll make adjustments if it makes sense.
I also am very honest with my readers and try not to be a “know-it-all.” There have been flops. There have been things that tasted great, but didn’t photograph very well. There have been things that photographed well, but were a little off. I’ll include that in my blogging … because I don’t want someone else to make those same mistakes. I rely on the feedback regarding my recipes. If I can change some thing to make it better, I will.
Q: You said the blog started because you didn’t know where to begin with writing a cookbook. After three years, do you think you’re ready to move on to writing and publishing your own book?
A: I’ve started flirting with the idea. I don’t know anything about getting a literary agent and I’ve only started looking at those companies that allow you to self-publish. It’s the next phase I’ll work on. I’m constantly thinking of new material and recipes for the blog.
There’s a challenge in writing recipes. I’m pretty laid back in the kitchen. I’ve gotten better out of habit, but originally, I would tend to eyeball everything. I’d just do it and make whatever, and then go back. Usually, I’ll think of the recipe, make it, take pictures, then blog it. I don’t write it up first, then make it, so I’ll have to go back and go, “OK, how much of this did I put in there?” So it was hard at first, but I’ve become more of a measurer.
I advocate culinary freedom. You don’t have to follow my recipes to a tee. If there’s something in there, like capers, that you don’t like, just take it out.
Q: Is it tricky being so scientific and writing out steps when it comes to an activity that’s mostly creative? Wouldn’t talking about it on TV be easier than writing?
A: I have found that I need to expand more on my instructions. I try to be clear and precise and put myself in the reader’s shoes. You don’t want to write a novel for each post either, so it’s a balance. If I had the choice between writing cookbooks and having my own TV show, I’ll take the cookbooks. One, I’m terrified of cameras, and two, I think I come across better on paper.
Q: With so many people online blogging about food today, how do you distinguish your recipes and make your voice heard?
A: For me, it’s about really knowing who you are as a person and what your culinary perspective is. The two things that distinguish me as a food blogger is first, I try to use as fresh and natural foods as I can. I like my dishes to have a lot of color … the kind you get from fresh vegetables and fruits. Secondly, I try to explore other cuisines. Cuban food, to me, is the bomb. It’s delicious. It’s fiery and exotic. And I know I sound like I’m shamelessly promoting my culture, but it really is delicious.
There are so many other foods out there worth exploring and I want to help people break out of their everyday rut. Life is too short to not have a great meal. You should garnish everyday. Chop up some herbs and throw them on top of your meal before you sit down and eat.
I want to empower people to make good food with fresh, natural ingredients with the resources and the knowledge they have available. You can make good food and not spend a fortune.